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As Florida school construction money dries up, charter schools are the winners

In an already lean budget year, Florida's public schools are facing yet another challenge:

Finding money to build badly needed new schools and fix crumbling old ones.

The state's primary fund to help schools pay for construction, the Public Education Capital Outlay, dropped from $254.2 million last year to just $51.3 million in the 2011-12 school year.

And though legislators found enough money to bump that to $77 million, they decided not to give the state's traditional K-12 public schools any of it.

So where is that money going? Charter schools, colleges and universities.

Lawmakers earmarked about $55 million for just the charters, publicly funded schools operated by private organizations — $1 million less than they got in 2010-11.

That leaves just $21.9 million for colleges and universities — a 71 percent cut in this source of funding over the prior year.

Steve Swartzel, the Pinellas County School Board's legislative lobbyist, said the cut to K-12 is one of many blows the system has suffered.

"We got so much less in so many ways," Swartzel said, "that this was just another way."

Last year, the county received $6.2 million from the fund, which overall sent $122 million to Florida public schools.

Still, when Pinellas School Board members gathered Thursday to discuss their top construction needs for the next five years, their chief financial officer couldn't help but point out that repairs to deteriorating schools will likely be delayed.

If the funding doesn't come back, Pinellas County's facilities budget could be operating $9.2 million in the red as soon as the 2014-15 school year — and that's without any major new projects, said CFO Fred Matz.

On the district's list of 133 needed projects, Largo High School is No. 1. The aging school has problems with the roof, the heating and cooling systems, and floors are deteriorating, said associate superintendent Michael Bessette. Things are so bad, officials have talked about replacing the school for eight years.

It's been decades since Pinellas County sought a bond to pay for facilities.

"At what point do we … dig our heels in and decide to go and borrow money to do this?" asked board member Janet Clark.

"Obviously," Matz responded, "if you borrow money, you need to be able to pay it back."

A few minutes later, he was more direct: "We don't have the money to bond."

The Public Education Capital Outlay trust fund comes from gross utilities receipts, which have declined in recent years.

For all the public school districts that got nothing, the story promises the same headline:

Hard decisions and construction delays.

Steve Hegarty, a spokesman for the Hillsborough County school district, said the loss of those dollars means safety and emergency projects will take priority.

"What that means to us is that renovation and maintenance projects that were in the works are unfunded," he said. "Some projects will be delayed, and others simply will not get done."

A year ago, Pasco County schools received about $2.7 million for construction and maintenance projects.

Knowing that money is cut, the board has delayed the planned rebuilding of an aging elementary school that it recently closed and razed. It also has put off a needed remodeling of another elementary school, and deferred $4.5 million of maintenance projects due to lack of funding.

The district is moving ahead with only the projects that already have been getting money, such as a new culinary arts academy, new classrooms at Pasco Middle School and the reconstruction of Richey Elementary.

Hernando County got about $120,000 last year, which was used for maintenance. This year it is cutting back 15 to 20 percent in maintenance projects.

Back in Pinellas, board members decided Thursday that despite the meager predictions, they still want to talk about an ever-growing list of needs in the 103,000-student district.

They'll have that conversation in September.

Times staff writers Marlene Sokol, Jeffrey Solochek and Aubrey Whelan contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8707.

As Florida school construction money dries up, charter schools are the winners 07/14/11 [Last modified: Thursday, July 14, 2011 10:21pm]
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